Christina Aguilera was a household name before she was 20, and by then she was already a veteran performer. At age 9, Aguilera appeared on TV's "Star Search" — and lost. Backstage after the appearance, she broke down in tears, Aguilera told The Times in 1999. But losing the talent contest was the least of her early difficulties.
Though born in Staten Island, N.Y., Aguilera relocated at an early age to suburban Pennsylvania when her parents divorced. The price of fame was high in Wexford, Pa.: Aguilera said that after her "Star Search" debut, her mother's tires were slashed by jealous parents and many classmates started ignoring her.
A year after that, Aguilera went to an open audition in Pittsburgh for "The All New Mickey Mouse Club." Two years passed before she heard anything. When she was 12, she received the news that she would be a Mousketeer and began flying to Orlando to film the show during summer breaks. Her success made her somewhat of a public enemy among her Pennsylvania peers, and Aguilera was forced to switch schools due to constant torment.
Yet it was while working as a Mouseketeer that Aguilera caught the attention of music industry executive Steve Kurtz, who asked to be Aguilera's manager and later sent a tape of the little girl with star power to RCA Records. The note Kurtz sent was eventually hung on the wall of Universal Music Group executive Ron Fair, who inked Aguilera to a deal with RCA Records.
"She was fearless," Fair told The Times. "She had perfect intonation and command of her instrument that normally you would see in someone a lot older. I was struck by her amazing voice, her budding beauty, and I decided to take a shot and sign her to a demo deal."
But before that deal was completed, Fair received a call from a friend at Disney asking if he knew of any stellar young singers to record "Reflection," the song that would become the lead song on the "Mulan" soundtrack.
Aguilera nailed the job, and "Reflection" was nominated for an Alma award and a Golden Globe. RCA began working on her self-titled debut album, enlisting some of the top names in songwriting, including Diane Warren, Carl Strunken and David Frank; all of the songs on the album were recorded when she was 17. The multimillion-selling album was released in 1999 when Aguilera was 18.
A singer of substantial skill, Aguilera has been compared by many in the industry to her two most apparent influences, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Songwriter Steve Kipner, who co-wrote her early hit "Genie in a Bottle," said he was impressed by Aguilera during recording because she did not need coaching to improvise complex R&B lines, a skill he said he generally sees only in older artists.
"She's internalized all the riffs from Chaka Khan to Etta James to Mariah and made them her own," Kipner said.
It was apparent early that Aguilera, while not above a well-choreographed dance routine in a skimpy outfit, would go a different route than the typical teen star. For her second album, Aguilera tapped into her Latin heritage.
Aguilera's father, with whom she has little to no contact and about whom she has been reluctant to speak, is from Ecuador. Her mother is an Irish American who studied to become a Spanish translator. Aguilera grew up listening to her parents speak Spanish, and released the Spanish-language "Mi Reflejo" in 2000.
Aguilera's 2002 album "Stripped" took a turn for the dark. Although her racy outfits gave that album's title, "Stripped," another connotation, the record was supposed to lay bare the true Christina. The petite singer had complained in interviews that her self-titled 1999 debut album didn't really reflect her — that it was manufactured by record producers and others, and that she hated not being in control.
In fact, her sophomore album suggested that much in Aguilera's life had been on the troubled side, and the only way she could get past it was to share her pain with her fans. She even went from blond to brunet to make sure the world noticed she was a new woman.
Aguilera tried to further distance herself from her teen pop roots with the 2006 album "Back to Basics," a two-disc set of high-concept pop and hip-hop that owned an eye toward the past. To promote her first single from the effort, the horn-laden "Ain't No Other Man," the singer made a video that evoked pop's favorite Betties — Boop, Grable and Page — and wore, wrote Times pop music critic Ann Powers, "enough sequins to make Elizabeth Taylor squint."
On the album's song "Back in the Day," Aguilera promoted the old idea that truly original music was created before hip-hop. "Open your mind, enjoy the ride," Aguilera sang as a roll call of heroes unspooled behind her: Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder. Though The Times' Powers declared that "Back in the Day" itself sounded like none of those artists, it left "no doubt that Aguilera's never letting them stray far from her mind."
Indeed, for her 2010 feature film debut in "Burlesque," Aguilera played the role of a more old-fashioned star, a leading singer and dancer in a cabaret. In the film, Aguilera tackles Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me." "Burlesque" came in what was regarded as somewhat of an off year for the star, as her summer album "Bionic" failed to reach the heights of her prior efforts, and an accompanying arena tour was postponed.